It may not have been a thunderclap, but Orson Pratt's public acknowledgment in 1852 that Mormons practiced plural marriage came as a stunning disclosure that was felt wherever the church had a presence.
The word caused scarcely a ripple in Utah, where most Mormons were aware that church leaders had been practicing polygamy for more than a decade, though in Europe the ripple became a shudder of some consequence.
Richard S. Van Wagoner, in his Mormon Polygamy, A History, pointed to the remarks of missionary T.B.H. Stenhouse, who reported that during the first six months that the doctrine was preached openly, 1,776 British Saints quit the church. Other observers described the reaction as a ``bombshell'' with opposition to Mormonism in many cases resulting in mob violence and increased harassment of church members as far away as ``the islands of the sea; from Denmark, Sweden and Norway; from distant India as well as from England.''
The situation for missionaries was especially awkward. John Taylor, for instance, in July 1850 defiantly denied the doctrine in a public discussion in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, calling such charges slanderous and worse.
``We are accused of polygamy, and actions the most indelicate, obscene and disgusting, such that none but a corrupt and depraved heart could have contrived,'' he said in righteous indignation, while in Great Salt Lake City, his six wives waited anxiously for his return. (Taylor would take a seventh plural wife in 1856.)
The subject was like tinder in a parched land. Those who questioned, embraced or cursed the doctrine could not even put the correct name to it. It was not ``polygamy'' (the practice of having two or more spouses, men or women, at the same time), but ``polygyny'' (having two or more wives at once).
Barely a year after Taylor's debate in Boulogne and fully a year before Pratt's speech, four of five federal officials appointed to office in Utah Territory turned on their heels and abandoned their posts, complaining that Gov. Young would not cooperate with them. Labeled ``the runaways,'' the four wrote President Millard Fillmore that ``plurality of wives'' was openly avowed and practiced in the territory and ``so universal is this practice that very few if any leading men in that community can be found who have not more than one wife each . . . and some of them . . . as many as twenty or thirty.''
It was this atmosphere intensified by the urging of the more cool-headed among the hierarchy that persuaded Young it was time for an ``official proclamation.'' He asked Pratt to make the historic announcement at a special conference on Sunday, Aug. 29, 1852.
The assignment was unexpected and prompted Pratt to preface his remarks by saying, ``I have not been in the habit of publicly speaking upon this subject and it is rather new ground to the inhabitants of the United States, not only to them, but to a portion of the inhabitants of Europe. . . . It is well known, however, to the congregation before me, that the Latter-day Saints have embraced the doctrine of a plurality of wives, as part of their religious faith.''
But, he emphasized, ``It is not, as many have supposed, a doctrine embraced by them to gratify the carnal lusts and feelings of men; that is not the object of the doctrine.''
He stood at the Tabernacle pulpit for some two hours summarizing the revelation received in 1843 by the church's founder and first prophet, Joseph Smith, and closed by asking, ``What does the Lord intend to do with this people? He intends to make them a kingdom of Kings and Priests, a kingdom unto himself, or in other words a kingdom of Gods, if they will hearken to his law. There will be many who will not hearken, there will be the foolish among the wise who will not receive the new and everlasting covenant [plural marriage] in its fullness, and they never will attain to their exaltation, they never will be counted worthy to hold the sceptre of power over a numerous progeny, that shall multiply themselves without end, like the sand upon the seashore.''
Pratt did not overlook the legal constraints that might hinder acceptance of the doctrine. Early in his remarks he commented, ``I think, if I am not mistaken, that the Constitution gives the privilege to all inhabitants of this country, of the free exercise of their religious notions, and the freedom of their faith, and the practice of it. Then if it can be proven . . . that the Latter-day Saints have actually embraced, as a part and portion of their religion, the doctrine of a plurality of wives, it is constitutional.''
That argument frustrated opposition for years, until the sheer weight of public opinion brought it crashing down with the passage of various anti-polygamy measures.
After Pratt had fulfilled his role as delineator of the doctrine, Young strode to the pulpit and added his affirmation to the announcement. It is a principle we believe in, he said, ``And I tell you, for I know it -- it will sail over and ride triumphantly above all the prejudice and priestcraft of the day; it will be fostered and believed in by the more intelligent portions of the world, as one of the best doctrines ever proclaimed to any people.''
Influential Eastern newspapers railed against the doctrine and those who practiced it. The New York Mirror denounced Mormonism as an ``immoral excrescence.'' The New York Herald wrote of harems, whores and concubines. And in 1856, John C. Fremont ran on the new Republican Party's presidential platform calling for the end of polygamy and slavery from American society as the ``twin relics of barbarism.''
Young's answer to these criticisms was to send missionaries to Washington, New York, California and Missouri to set up periodicals and newspapers to advocate and defend the faith -- including the newly proclaimed plurality doctrine.
Orson Pratt started The Seer in Washington in January 1853; Erastus Snow had the St. Louis Luminary operating by November 1854; Taylor established The Mormon in New York in the same neighborhood as the Herald and the Tribune in February 1855; and George Q. Cannon founded the Western Standard in San Francisco in early 1856. This group of editors produced a steady flow of rebuttals to anti-Mormon stories published across the country.
In the first issue of The Mormon, Taylor had this to say in an editorial on polygamy: ``It may be expected that something should be said by us, in relation to this matter. This we undertake as cheerfully as any other task; for we are not ashamed . . . to declare we are polygamists. . . . We do this calmly, seriously and understandingly; after due deliberation, careful examination and close investigation of its principles and bearings; religiously, socially, morally, physically and politically; we unhesitatingly pronounced our full and implicit faith in this principle, as emanating from God, and that under his direction it would be a blessing to the human family.
``We as eternal beings believe in eternal laws, covenants and unions, emanating from God, and based upon purity and virtue. We are not united only `until death do us part,' but expect an eternal union, in the eternal worlds, based upon living, intelligent, eternal principles; our gospel, our religion, our covenants and marriages; all our acts refer to this; and no one can detest the loathsome, degraded, corrupt and miserable state of the world, in relation to lewdness, lasciviousness, adultery and debauchery, more than we do; and were women treated with us as they are in thousands of instances here, it would cost a man his head.''
When a move for statehood provoked anti-polygamy legislation in Washington, the pinch in Salt Lake City became a painful squeeze. The Edmunds Act of 1882, intended to disenfranchise polygamists and deny them public office and jury duty, cost them dearly. Those who fought were relegated to a life of hiding on the Mormon underground. ``More than 1,300 Mormon men and a few women were jailed for polygamy, `unlawful cohabitation' or both,'' according to historian Van Wagoner.
And in the end, financial ruin faced The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and long prison sentences loomed for stubborn adherents to the forbidden practice. It brought about the Wilford Woodruff Manifesto in 1890 renouncing the doctrine.